I’d forgotten my town somehow. I’d forgotten what it did for me. I think I’d forgotten because I was there alone. I was there just living. Skopje had been an adventure a day. In Skopje I was learning something new in class, I was hiking around the city with Mike or Josh looking for something. I was sneaking off to meet Julia. Skopje had been an adventure.
Kochani on the other hand, was all mine. No one knew about it. It was so different than Skopje: no one telling me to be somewhere at a certain hour, no lessons to study, no girlfriend to meet in the park. No one to share things with. Every day was new, but with myself in charge of my experiences, it seemed less...important, less concrete.
I guess it’s not until I left and returned that Kochani presented itself to me as a picture, as some kind of legitimate history.
To be clear, Kochani is a town in the east of Macedonia on the Balkan Peninsula. It’s the second to last major town before reaching the Bulgarian border about an hour bus ride still east of the town. People have told me Kochani has about 30,000 people. I’m not sure how much area that encompasses though. If it includes all the outlying farms in what in the US we would call outside the city but still in the county, I’d believe 30,000.
The city center is wedged around a little river or stream that runs down from the Osogovo Mountain Range into the fields below. Historically rice has been the major crop of the area--a crop that has been losing prevalence for economic reasons, just like anywhere. Most of the town is set on the foothills of the mountain range so that the east and west side face each other, one side receiving the morning sun, the other side the setting. As the town has grown, the population has spilled over the western hill.
Kochani is old enough that there are two Turkish watchtowers placed on the eastern and western sides of the little river. The Turks have been gone for about a hundred years, and I don’t know how old the structures were when the Turks were finally expelled. On the western hill, a ten minute climb to the top, the people have built an outdoor semi-amphitheater decorated with one of Europe’s largest mosaics. In bright oranges and blues and reds are abstract scenes, perhaps borrowing from Picasso’s Guernica, of the struggle for freedom against fascism. The huge white structure, to an outsider like me, appears practically abandoned. It is overgrown with scratchy weeds and littered with beer cans. The light posts that remain are topped with rusted and lopsided fixtures. New red and white radio masts now adorn the hill top behind the memorial. A small weather station with a quickly spinning wind velocity propeller.
I went up to the memorial Sunday after thinking it best not to. Four years ago when I was here, ascending the eastern approach to get a photo of the town below, I was greeted with a young man’s bare ass ramming down on its owner’s girlfriend. I wasn’t totally surprised by the event, but was a little amazed that they were at work while the sun was still up. Young people, lacking privacy--parents are usually home in the small apartments, there are no cheap hotels--find any conceivable (ugh, totally unintentional pun) spot to carry on as people have for eons.
But it was about five o’clock and the light was just becoming right. All during the day with the sun overhead the view across the Kochani Plain is obscured with haze. At this time of day I couldn’t help but feel anxiously pulled to the top of the hill. So I went--and this time thankfully, no lovers. I wanted to click a quick few shots with my new camera with its panorama feature. I hoped to capture Kochani as I have never been able to before--roofs in the foreground, rice paddies in the distance, and the Plachkovica Range ten miles off in the distance. If everything worked right I might be able to capture in three camera frames a width of the valley between Osogovo behind me and Plachkovica before me that spanned twenty miles.
After scampering around through weeds and over low whitewashed concrete walls for the best points of view, I slowed down and noticed the noise. I was aiming up the Kochansko stream’s valley in an attempt to document how the green hills fold together like fingers of two hands clasped together when I noticed the sound from all sides. Not the buzz of summer insects moving from dry weed to dry weed indecisively, but of hammering and sawing and wood splitting.
Less than ten kilometers to the south east of Kochani is a smaller town called Vinica or Vinizza (sounds like “pizza”). On one of their hills are the remains of Vinichko Kale, a stone fortress that has given up rich evidence of pre Christian and early Christian occupation--so this area has been populated since before Christ, over 2000 years. Yet on the top of the hill I was on, I could hear the work of construction. Amazing. A place a hundred times or more older than my own country was still in the process of becoming. On all sides of me saws whined and hammers plam plam plammed against nails.
Thirteen years ago I arrived in Kochani for the first time. I was a 130 pound package of despondency--my relationship with Julia was on the rocks. It was starving and emaciated and I didn’t know why--I didn’t have the courage to ask, fearing asking would hasten an answer. It was one hot summer afternoon that I decided to get off my ass and take my camera around town. I’d seen some white object on top of the city’s western hill and thought I ought to investigate. If this was going to be my town, I ought to know what was there. I still don’t understand the paradox of approaching an object on a hill and losing complete sight of it. I guess as one approaches, objects between the eye and the goal become larger in perspective and seem to rise and block the view. I think I learned in science class in high school that this is called parallax. The thing you are looking for seems to move or in this case, hide, as you move closer.
After weaving thorough a maze of one lane roads between houses built on the hillside, one roof level with the next house’s foundation, I finally located my target. Thirteen years ago the war memorial had already begun its decline. I wasn’t sure if photographing it would be perceived as a tribute to its original intention or as a westerner’s documentation of the decline of a former socialist state. There were plenty of people who believed in me and in my role as a Peace Corps Volunteer come to “do good,” but there were also a loud number of detractors who let me know their belief. I was part of an aggressor empire. My country had schemed and executed a sinister plan to destroy the world’s third most powerful nation. The third most powerful, but also the world’s first most peaceful, prosperous, and benevolent state. They wanted nothing to do with me and they approached me every damn day to tell me about myself and my ignorance of history.
I ended up not taking any pictures of the memorial, not necessarily out of my great political sensitivity, but because from up so close to the structure, it wouldn’t all fit in the frame of the camera. Standing there puzzled and frustrated I heard a low clank, clank, clank sound. I turned around and three donkeys were slowly making their way across the dry grass of the hilltop. I know nothing about farm animals and I remember wondering what these animals were doing out alone without some kind of supervision. I guess I thought of them as large dogs off their leashes. Not like they would bite anyone, but wouldn’t they wander off? Would they return home? I still don’t know a thing about animals. But as the donkeys wandered past me they formed a perfect staggered line, the third one from me was a neck ahead of the first, the second ahead of the first by a head. Click, and they were mine.